Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Myth And Fraud Of The 'Small State'

The Tory message is ‘small state, Big Society’, a situation which they contrast to New Labour's ‘big state culture’ which pampered scroungers until they lost the will to work.
Indeed, this Conservative assault on the ‘big state’ has been going on since Thatcher, and it is a Tory tenet which people can (and most people do) easily understand.
It is a lie and a fraud.

The Tories, people believe, want to reduce the huge burden of over-bearing, intrusive ‘government’ in our everyday lives, and this will particularly involve:
• moving provision of services from the state to private ‘competition’
• smaller councils
• consequently-reduced state expenditure and lower taxes

Inasmuch as most people’s immediate contact with government boils down to taxes and laws – which are indeed intended to be limiting – it is a message which appeals to the voters.
But it is a lie, in every aspect.

Has all this privatisation reduced in any way the burden of services?
To an obvious degree, it has not.

Squandering the nationalised industries
The denationalisation of the nationalised industries under Thatcher (pawning the family silver, as MacMillan warned) was ‘sold’ to the public, ironically, as taking those industries out of state ownership and putting them into public ownership. It was part of Thatcher’s erroneous vision for a share-owning public who would own the companies who supplied their services.

Of course it was rubbish; the REAL reason the government denationalised was that it took fright at the cost to the taxpayer of the reinvestment needed (when the Tories had been elected on a tax-cutting manifesto).
And, as for ‘a share-owning public’, most people simply sold their shares, which fell – and have continued to fall – into the hands of pension funds, hedge funds and (increasingly) foreign buyers. Thus, rather than changing from state- to public-ownership, what has actually happened to the nationalised industries is that they have merely been transferred to private corporations from public ownership … from what was in effect a non-profit making company run by the government.

What we forgot, of course, was that those companies had been nationalised for a reason – because they were all industries which CANNOT be delivered by small firms.
And, therefore, we found that all those industries of necessity fell quickly into the hands of a few huge corporations… and thereby fell subject to informal (and occasionally formal) price-fixing cartels.

I have beefed about the denationalised industries before. We complained about their legendary inefficiency, but I don’t think we ever expected the private alternative to involve 25 minutes listening to musak whilst waiting to be connected to a man who calls himself John but doesn't really speak English.
However, the main consequence for us has simply been the sight of huge foreign corporations making billions-upon-billions of profit whilst nevertheless still raising our prices when we know for a damn fact that wholesale prices have fallen ... whilst our government is spectacularly powerless to do anything about it.
The nadir has been reached in the recent humiliating spectacle of our government having to bribe the informal-cartel of faux-reticent energy companies to invest in our power production … by allowing them to charge double or treble for the energy when they sell it on to us, the consumer.

‘Small state’? Denationalisation did indeed reduce the orbit of the state – but all it did in doing so was to hand us over to the profiteer. We still have to PAY for those services (they were a loss to the public but not a reduction on our pocket); it’s just that we have to pay so much more now.

Sterilising our Councils
The other process, which started under Thatcher but continued enthusiastically under New Labour, has been the asset-stripping of our Councils.

In the 1970s, local government DELIVERED your services but, by a series of strategies – compulsory competitive tendering, private finance initiative, local financial management etc. – these services have been systematically taken from the control of the local Council and given to private companies.
In some areas (e.g. education, social housing), there was a thought that these companies would be not-for-profit organisations, but that is increasingly being thrown to the wind.
Increasingly, what we are seeing is (for example) wheelie bins which are supplied by a firm now called ESE (Environmental Systems Expertise) – but previously Otto Entsorgungssysteme – and our care homes provided by Southern Cross, whose executives ‘pocketed £35m by selling their entire stakes in the company in late 2007, just before its shares began to plunge’ etc.
Councils substantially – and increasingly – have been reduced from service-providers to mere service-commissioners.

The point is, of course, that as far as we – the taxpayers – are concerned, there is no change. We continue to pay more and more for the same services.

The change to private service delivery was accompanied with much propaganda about the inefficiency and incompetence of local Councils. To be fair, it was probably true. Certainly, as they closed down one works department after the other, even the Councillors were assuring the public that this was securing cheaper deals for their electors.
But what we are finding out now, however, is what we should have realised at the time – that replacing the doddery, indulgent grandparent of a community services provider with a slick, impersonal potential-rapist of a service provider was NOT the cleverest move we ever made.

For a start, we didn’t ask enough questions about how these companies proposed to make their profit at a reduced price. We just believed the propaganda about ‘efficiencies’. When it comes to it, however, most of these companies have made their profits by using fewer workers, with lower qualifications, and greatly-reduced wages and higher workloads. Occasionally we get a scandal, such as the care worker who rushes in and shoves a meal in the microwave whilst failing to notice that the old lady is stuck in the lavatory, but – hey! – they just sack that worker and employ someone else on the same terms.
And our payments-for-services do not go into the pockets of local people as wages, which they then spend with local shops and businesses, but they go off to tax havens and overseas shareholders’ bank accounts as the company’s profit-at-our-expense.

We have also found that our council officers – often non-competitive individuals who joined what they saw essentially as a service profession – have turned out to be hopeless at making contracts. The private companies must have been licking their lips at the sight of these ingénues rattling back and forth between their predatory lawyers and our inexperienced elected Councillors. The result has been – notably in PFI – a series of ruinous contracts where we find we have been, essentially, shafted … and which we are finding in some cases impossible to pay.
And whilst our placatory, socially-motivated officers have turned out to be bad at contracts, they seem even worse at monitoring – they are just not nasty enough.
You or I would have thought, wouldn’t we, that a service contract would have included some form of penalties for incompletion or omissions. Not a bit of it! Every shortfall in provision turns out to be providable … providing we pay more.
Which we do, of course. (Bus services are the prime example of this – having gained the contract by promising to provide a certain service, the bus companies are forever cutting services which they then declare themselves prepared to provide… as long as those routes are subsidised.)

Meanwhile, as for the companies, they are laughing all the way to the bank. For them, not only are they on a hugely advantageous contract, but they are at arm’s length from the consumer. Anybody with a beef about ‘Council’ services does not telephone the company to play hell – he telephones the Council officers! So THEY absorb all the anger and the abuse ... before some 24-year-old, low-grade officer contacts the company and believes every damn-silly story they tell him, so he can phone back the angry member of the public to tell them that nothing can be done…

The Myth of the Small State
We have been sold a lie.
When they told us they were going to ‘reduce the state’, they lied.
Of course they lied … we still need, and were always going to need, the services provided by the state.

All they have done is to take the services which hitherto were provided by the state, and to contract them out to huge, multi-national corporations.
Thus we have a government which no longer supplies services, it merely sits around contracting them out to private firms.

The effect of this has been to take from us providers which were not-for-profit and in the last resort accountable-to-the-public, and to replace them with faceless, rapacious capitalist corporations.
We have been delivered unto the profiteers and the monopolists, and all in the name of some rubbish which promised us that doing so would give us ‘choice’, and engender ‘competition’.
(And if you still believe that nonsense, all I would ask you to consider is the electricity suppliers. What ‘choice’ do we have there? What ‘competition’ do you see there?)

But there has been another, more sinister development happening alongside this process. Because people are asking – when all the state does now is award contracts – why we need so many councillors, so many MPs. The corollary of a state where the public services are provided by corporations is a corporatist state, and the shrivelling of our democratic functions.
We are already seeing at local level the imposition, over the body of Councillors, of executive Mayors and Police Commissioners. How long is it before we decide that, in just the same way, we should impose an executive Duce or Sovnarkom over our brawling rabble of MPs?
(Which is only what has happened in Greece, Italy and Hungary.)

‘The state’ is as big as ever; it is just that it is being delivered
by PLCs for a profit, not by elected bodies for our benefit.

And now they are proposing to do the self-same to the NHS.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Is It Not Time To Lay The Myth of Neoliberalism?

The greatest success of neoliberalism has been to stereotype socialists as ‘flat-earthers’. It at once stigmatises them not only as ‘loonies’, but as hopelessly out-of-date loonies, running after a misapprehension discredited centuries ago.

To that extent, the message is that we must all be neoliberals now, if we are to be ‘credible’.
Even the Socialist Workers Party, enjoying unaccustomed coverage as they protested against workfare, felt it necessary to repeat frequently that they were ‘proud of being socialist’ … as though they, too, appreciated that ‘socialist’ has become a dirty word.

But is it really so altogether mad to be a socialist?
And is neoliberalism really the sensible, infallible corpus we are assured it is?

The Supremacy of Neoliberalism
The neoliberal propaganda machine is at full volume at the moment.

We are told that:
• Capitalism has made us rich, so there is no other way to be prosperous.
• If the rich prosper, wealth will ‘trickle down’ to the rest of society.
• Sovereign debt is ruining the economy, so austerity cuts are unavoidable.
• This is the worst depression since the 1930s.
• The answer to all our problems is GROWTH.
• The state is too ‘big’ and must be reduced.
• The welfare state has created a lazy ‘benefits culture’, and we have an unsustainably large number of (workless, disabled and old) people on benefits.
• An excess of ‘red tape’ is stifling industry.

The statements are, and have been, trotted out so regularly and with such authority by the leaders of both parties to the point where they are almost above contradiction.

Neoliberalism struts about as though it has a monopoly of empirical credibility.
But its tenets are demonstrably nonsense – either internally contradictory, or incompatible with each other.
And it is time we laid the myths to rest.

The Lunacy of Neoliberalism
There is a lovely science fiction story about a man who finds himself in hell – a hell which so perfectly fits in every detail his accepted image of hell that eventually he cries out: ‘I don’t BELIEVE it' … whereupon the illusion shatters and hell crumbles and the man find himself back in the ‘real’ world.
He looks around for a while and then, as the ground begins to shake under him, cries once again: ‘I don’t believe it’.
The worlds in which he lived only existed because he was giving mental assent to them.

In a similar way, the hell which the neoliberals have created for us to live in has no more absolute reality than the story-hero’s hell. It is a myth – a conceptual construct – and it is so wide of reality that is it unsurprising that our policy-makers are finding it increasingly difficult to hold the structure together.

Capitalism – per se – has NOT made the West rich. What made the West rich in the last half-century was massive technological advantage coupled to favourable terms of trade. So that immediately calls into question the rider that 'there is no other way’ to restore prosperity – in fact, now that the Asian tiger has surpassed us economically, there is every likelihood that, from now on, capitalism will steadily make the West POORER.

It is statistically (and empirically) demonstrable that allowing the rich to prosper does NOT ‘trickle down’ wealth to the rest of us. Having reached a high in the 1930s, but then having been reduced by the socialist post-war reforms, the gap between rich and poor has been again growing steadily since Thatcher.
Here is a news flash: allowing the rich to prosper … allows the rich to prosper.
(And you thought the socialists were flat-earthers.)

Similarly, one has to guffaw at the confidence with which the neoliberals tell us that austerity cuts are the only way to avoid ruin – when any fool with half a brain can look at Greece and SEE for himself that austerity does not avoid ruin … it CAUSES ruin.

Neither will anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the world economy be impressed by the attempts to compare the current recession to the depression of the 1930s. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The 1930s depression was a structural readjustment in which the ‘old industries’ collapsed and the ‘new industries’ prospered; the adjustment was worldwide, and it caused suffering world-wide.
The current recession is a European phenomenon. China is so exposed to Europe that our troubles have slowed (though not halted) China’s growth … but meanwhile the rest of the world (Indonesia, India, Brazil, Africa) is booming.
THERE IS NO WORLD DEPRESSION … there is merely European capitalism collapsing in the face of foreign competition.

And this gives the lie, of course, to the neoliberals’ solution – that the answer to all our problems is GROWTH.
We cannot sustain the earth cannot sustain – ALL the nations of the world endlessly increasingly all their living standards, endlessly consuming resources, endlessly growing economically at 3% per annum.

Neoliberalism … I DON’T BELIEVE IT!

What Neoliberalism is REALLY about
At it heart, the capitalist system is a competitive system, in which there must be winners and losers.
Our problem is that, having been for centuries the winners, we are staring into a future in which there is a good chance that we will be amongst the losers.

And it is only in the realisation that European capitalism is succumbing to the BRICTIM countries that the apparently contradictory claims about the welfare state can be understood.

In any other terms, they are nonsensical.
• How can sacking public sector workers and reducing benefits and pensions help the economy – they merely reduce demand!
• How does giving employers the freedom to sack workers stimulate employment?
• Surely making older people work longer will simply exacerbate youth unemployment?

However, viewed through the lens of a capitalism which has realised that it is losing ground to the East, they are ENTIRELY comprehensible:
• The assault on workers’ rights and welfare benefits is transparently merely an attempt to increase profitability by shedding obligations.
• The privatisation of the state sector is clearly merely an attempt to secure lucrative, protected markets.

Capitalism in the West is not stuttering; it is doing what the ‘hidden hand’ always said it would – readjusting to meet the new economic reality … at our expense.
(All you need to do is to think: ‘hand-loom weavers’.)

Towards a Neosocialism
Historically, socialism was a system – the ‘command economy’ – which attempted to control the means of production for the benefit of … well, properly, it was supposed to be ‘the people’, but all too often it ended up being ‘the state’ (and the two were NOT commensurate).

But now, as western capitalism bends before the chill wind of economic superiority, we need more than ever to control the means of production for the protection of the people.
If we do not, our great-grandchildren will be sewing trainers for teenagers in other countries.

We need a 'neosocialism' which will take account of the reality of our current economic situation. There is no future in propagating old dogmas – they are as unconnected to the current economic reality as is neoliberalism.

Cleverer philosophers than I must formulate the tenets of this new 'neosocialism', but if you asked me, I would suggest that it would include at least the following:
1. a ruthless marshalling of the energies of the whole people for the benefit of the whole people, particularly by eliminating unemployment.
2. nationalisation of essential industries – e.g. electricity, gas, water, transport, banking … or at least setting up state firms to offer an alternative to the international cartels – not for ideological reasons, but for the protection of the British consumer.
3. autarky in the industries essential to providing a basic standard of life – e.g. agriculture, power, water, construction – to safeguard supplies.
4. reducing taxes for resident capitalist firms, whilst increasing taxes for wealthy individuals; insisting on an ethos of individual duty.
5. a system of pre- and re-distribution which will assure for all a basic standard of living and access to essential services free at the point of need.
6. Bread for all before jam for any.

I realise that the things I am saying are the kind of things that the existing establishment regards as ridiculous, ‘flat-earth’ ideas.
What we need to establish, however, is that we are living in a rapidly changing world, in which it is increasingly their ideas which are irrelevant and inapplicable, and that increasingly the scene is set for a corpus of 'neosocialist' ideas which – crazy at it might seem – are increasingly going to make sense.

You heard it first here.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The 'Workfare' Debate And The Needs Of Real People

We’ve got this idiot government on the run again.
This time it’s over workfare – work-slavery, as it’s been stigmatised.

A Government on the back foot
Actually, the whole fracas (or, more appropriately, ‘frack-arse’, as Alf Garnett used to say) arose over an error. Job Centre Plus advertised a ‘permanent’ night-shift job at Tesco, with wages of Job Seekers’ Allowance + travel, and the world went mad.
I have never managed a ‘scoop’ before, but I did so on this one. I smelled a rat, and I tracked it down, and yes – as Tesco later announced – it was a mistake.
It was a two-night-only work experience, and part of a scheme called ‘Sector-Based Work Academies’ – a hyperbole of a title if ever there was one for a scheme which gives you two days at college, two days of work experience and a guaranteed job interview at the end.
I tweeted and emailed round some of the 'important people' but no one was interested.
They ‘had’ the government on this one.

But to be fair, it isn’t hard, is it?
This inept, pampered, arrogant set of millionaire public schoolboys breezed in thinking it would be SO easy, and indulged in a veritable tsunami of legislation … which is now turning out to be the most ill-thought-out, incompetent, un-implementable load of tripe ever to hit the statute books.
Everywhere – planning, welfare, NHS – opponents and protestors are making mincemeat of the Tories, who simply have proved unable to cope with the twitter-storm.

The Tesco workfare faux-scandal was typical. First it trended on twitter. Then it wasn’t long before there were mobs outside Tesco. Tesco buckled, and withdrew from the scheme.
There followed a whole load of blogs and tweets naming other companies … who buckled in their turn
– as Sunny Hundal enthused:
“XXXXXXX have sent out a statement saying they're ‘reviewing’ their Workfare arrangements, but no decision yet. Keep up the pressure!”

Add in the A4E scandal, and you have a government on the back foot.
The only response they could manage was an inept rant by Chris Grayling which gave the Socialist Workers Party more publicity than it had managed in the last decade. All his attempt to smear the workfare campaign as ‘a front for the Socialist Workers Party’ achieved was to propel it onto Radio 4.

The Right was on the run and you can sense the glee in Sunny Hundal’s crowing tweet:
“The joy of attacking Workfare is that it *really* winds up right-wingers & their fantasies of poor people working for free for big companies”

Peter’s Story
At the risk of incurring the wrath of Mr Hundal and the SWP, I have to say that I was disappointed by that tweet.
There are REAL issues and actual people involved here, and it ISN’T just a political game.

Because – when it comes to workfare – we need to make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Let me introduce you to Peter; he is 17 years of age now.
(‘Peter’, of course, is a fiction and a composite – but if you talk to any teacher or youth worker they will be able to show you dozens of ‘Peters’.)

When Peter came to Secondary School he was living with his aunt. He was less able, but full of life, with a vein of mischievousness which it was impossible not to like – he was what teachers used to call (before it became politically incorrect) a ‘daft lad’.

Towards the end of Year 9, Peter left home after conflict with his aunt and went to live with an unmarried uncle; the situation rapidly lapsed into more-or-less neglect.
For more than a year, we hardly saw Peter at school at all – any attempt at an education was pointless.

Then, halfway through Year 11, Peter returned, smart and clean! He was back with aunt, and he had decided to turn his life around.
School fell on him with a vengeance. Learning assistants worked him through COPE and ALaN courses. After a whirlwind of support, Peter left school at 16 with five GCSEs at C+ (a PE BTEC and COPE Level 2), plus GCSEs in English (F) and Maths (D).

Did we fail Peter? At school, Peter received bucketloads of positive support and affection, and a stability which was absent from the rest of his life. Peter is genuinely appreciative.
But if you were to accuse us of teaching him that there is always a second chance … or that if you can’t be bothered, a nice person will coax and cajole and half-do it for you … well, I don’t know whether I would protest too much.

Peter has never worked since he left school. He is a ‘NEET’. He is also bored; he spends a lot of time hanging round the youth centre and his local community hub, desperate to ‘do jobs’ – stack the chairs, tidy the cupboards.
If you ask him, he is still ‘at home’ (with aunt) but rarely stays there – he dosses round his friends’ homes at night. He is on the fringe of, and slowly being sucked into, a really nasty criminal gang.

What Peter needs – what his aunt is desperate for him to get – is a steady job.

Peter has NONE of the skills or attitudes which might fit him for a job. He is desperately immature, and prone to random, inexplicable acts of irresponsible behaviour. His attention-span is limited. But he is a personable chap, his time-keeping is good, and he LOVES praise and takes a sense of achievement from completing even the most limited, routine tasks.

Peter does NOT need ‘a living wage’ of £240+ a week. He is probably never going to have one anyway. He has spent the last decade going to school every day for free. £53.45 is actually ample for his needs aged 17, which are merely to be able to give an allowance to his aunt, and provide him with some spending money for the weekends.

What Peter DESPERATELY needs is something to fill his days constructively.
He needs a supportive and patient employer, who will demand that he turns up on time, insist that he finishes his work, and who gives him unskilled tasks within his abilities. He needs something which gives him a reason to get up in the morning, and sends him home tired and proud of himself at night.

And, given time, Peter could turn out to be a fine, upstanding ‘working-class man’.

What place Workfare?
It has become quite clear in the last few days that the government’s current varying workfare schemes are all useless and unworkable.
What use is a fortnight stacking shelves?
What use is a two-day course at college?
What use is providing zero-cost short-term labour to supermarkets?
… Peter needs A JOB, not a scheme.

And at the risk of losing my left-wing friends altogether at one fell swoop, I am not averse to some form of ‘workfare’ scheme to give him one.

It is simply the socialist principle of the command economy, which directs resources to where they are needed.
We have hospitals with filthy wards because nobody can afford to clean them.
We have millions of old people who cannot maintain their own gardens or spring-clean their rooms.
We have cash-strapped Councils paying millions for high-tech machines to do the work of dozens of people they have laid off.
Throughout the country we have hedges that need laying, dry-stone walls that need rebuilding, ponds that need clearing etc. etc.
We have a milliard societal and environmental tasks which simply are not getting done…
And we have nigh on a million teenagers, most of them fit and full of energy, whom we are giving £53.45 a week to sit on their backsides ‘looking for jobs’ which EVERYBODY can see do not exist.

It is sheer lunacy.

Controversially, I do not see any obligation on the state to maintain an able-bodied person in worklessness ... in idleness, to use the 19th century word. I do not see a human right to sit at home contributing nothing to society whilst receiving a basic standard of living as a gift.
What I DO advocate is the RIGHT to work, and the duty of the state to provide a suitable job if there is not one anywhere else, so that I might thereby be able to make a meaningful contribution to society.

It will need safeguards on all sides. The Unions must be proactively involved. There will have to be tough discussions on remuneration.
But surely it is not beyond the wit of man to put two and two together on this one?

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Should We Close the Bars In The House Of Commons?

If you, as a matter of course, are supplied with subsidised alcohol as you work, then you may wish to stop reading now.
It will only upset you.

The Unacceptable Drink
Ah – so you’re still reading!
Of course you are – because for most of us ordinary people the idea of drinking alcohol on the job (never mind drinking subsidised alcohol on the job) is unthinkable.

Can you imagine what you would say if you found out that your children’s teachers were routinely drinking alcohol as they worked in the classroom? Or if the surgeon giving your wife a caesarean had had a bottle of wine with his lunch?
In factory after factory throughout the country, being drunk in control of machinery would be a sacking offence. Alcohol makes you careless and sloppy. It clouds your judgement and slows your reactions. Even if you don’t have an accident, there is every likelihood that the quality of your work will suffer.

Those great entrepreneurs of the past – the captains of 19th century industry – knew this full well, and made every attempt to drive ‘the demon drink’ out of their workers’ lives, never mind their factories.
When Lord Eldon developed Eldon as a coal mining village, he did not allow any pub to be built in the village at all. Up Weardale, the lead mining companies encouraged Methodism, partly because they knew that Methodists signed the pledge; and the renunciation of alcohol, they appreciated, had a radical effect on the attitude and productivity of the employee.

There is a lovely story of a group of miners mocking a man who had recently ‘got religion’. “Could your Jesus turn this water into wine?” one of the men taunted him. “I don’t know about water into wine”, replied the miner, “but if you come home with me tonight, I’ll show you how He turned beer into furniture”.
Although the story is probably apocryphal, what is apposite, of course, is that ALL the miners were drinking water, in so dangerous a work environment as a mine.

A privilege for the posh
Of course, even in the factory, there was one place where the drink survived … in the boardroom. While alcohol was frowned upon for the workers, a mark of the manager’s status was to have a drinks cabinet. It was a sign that he was ‘the boss’.
In the same way, drinks accompanied ‘high society’, the hunts and the balls.

And, where it still exists, ‘drinking on the rates’ is usually accompanied by a totally inappropriate attitude towards the electors: the feeling that political office puts you above the electorate … makes you ‘the boss’ … gives you the right to privileges such as subsidised alcohol
Whereas, of course, those of us who know, realise that election makes you the servant of the people, not their superior.

A number of years ago – before I became a Councillor – my own local council abolished drinking on the rates. It was a hard-fought reform that attracted heated vitriol. Those who believe they have the right to a privilege, however unsupportable, rarely give it up without venom.
But give it up they had to, and we found that – not only was it the end of drinking – it was the start of a new spirit of integrity amongst the councillors. Stopping the subsidised alcohol cleaned up the politics… perhaps because it involved the breaking of that attitude which made the councillors feel that they had the latitude to benefit personally at the taxpayers’ expense.

Eric Joyce
Yesterday, Labour MP Eric Joyce was arrested for an (alleged) attack on another MP in the Strangers Bar in the House of Commons. No report stated that he was the worse for wear for drink, but in 2010 he resigned as shadow secretary of state after pleading guilty to failing to provide a breath test.

Even if he was stone cold sober, however, I am unhappy about MPs brawling in a bar in the seat of our democracy. It is not right that MPs should so demean themselves and their office – they are called ‘the honourable member’ and I would prefer their behaviour to be honourable.
Nor is this the first time it has happened – according to The Metro: ‘Labour MP Paul Farrelly was involved in a brawl in an unrelated incident at another Commons bar in 2010’.

ANOTHER Commons Bar!
For goodness sake! Just how much drinking on the job is going on here?
I am not very happy that, apparently, some of our representatives feel they can drink in the place where they also make the decisions which determine the whole of the rest of our lives.
I wonder how many MPs had a drink, for example, before they went to vote in the debate on the Iraq War?
And how many of those MPs voting on the Welfare Reform Bill the other day did so with their wits and their judgement impaired by alcohol?
I find this an abomination.

And it is linked, of course, with the corrupt attitude that their political rank means they should command this manner of life at our expense.
According to Wikipedia, Eric Joyce was the top-claiming MP in the House of Commons for 2005–06, claiming £174,811 in expenses. He hit the top of the expenses list again in 2007–08 with £187,334, and was the first MP to claim more than £1 million cumulatively in expenses.

He is a man who apparently drinks deep and often at our expense.

Any MP proposing to close the bars in Parliament would immediately become a pariah in the House. And I appreciate that there will be many people reading this who simply cannot see what I am bothered about.
Indeed, what MPs do in their private lives is no business of mine – I am not a teetotaller.

But show me an MP who thinks they have the right to drink on the job, and I will show you an MP who is not fit to make our laws.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Key To Good Politics Is To Keep To The Question

This is not a plea for ‘polite’ (namby-pamby ‘don’t-we-all-love-each-other’) politics – indeed, political debate must always be furious.
But it IS a plea that we should stick to the issues, avoid abuse and bullying, and engage in solution-focussed debate.

Two things happened today which have prompted me to make this blog.

Mr Mark Ferguson and PMQs
The first was Mark Ferguson’s response to PMQs today in his Labour List article. He was repulsed by them and – as I keep repeating ad nauseamI agree. So in fact does Ed Miliband.
What upset Mr Ferguson was the Prime Minister’s performance – dodging questions, bullying, blustering. He also abhorred, as I have, the MPs' raucous, bawdy and dishonourable behaviour – for most of us, it is half-an-hour of our representatives proving that they are unfit to represent us.

As for myself, the hiatus came when Labour MP Jack Dromey asked a question about extortionate rents. To be fair to the Prime Minister, Mr Dromey couldn’t resist tagging onto the end some political jibe about ‘the failure of the government’s house-building programme’, so perhaps he didn’t deserve a sensible reply but – to be honest about Mr Cameron – he didn’t get one. The Prime Minister (i.e. the senior politician in the country, and our representative amongst the nations) answered thus:
“Coming from a Party which saw house-building fall to its lowest level since the 1920s, I think I’ll take that with a lorry-load of salt.”

It was an utterly worthless reply to a question which – however clumsily projected – affects not just the prosperity of hundreds of thousands of householders but (now we have the cap) the very roof over their heads.
For me, it simply broadcast (literally) the utter worthlessness of PMQs within our democracy.

They are not a place where the questions facing our nation are considered. They are a place for shouting down opposing views, for humiliating and browbeating your opponents into submission, and for scoring cheap, trite … despicable … points.

Mr Andrew Emmerson and #TweetlikeEoinClarke
Beyond tweeting Mr Ferguson to remind him that this is one of my own bête-noirs, I would probably have left it at that – it is tiresome to simply rehearse endlessly what you know already.

But this evening I was upset to see a hashtag opened on twitter to the effect #TweetlikeEoinClarke. A Liberal Democrat blogger named Andrew Emmerson was ridiculing Mr Eoin Clarke.

Eoin Clarke runs an earnest ‘Labour-left’ blog called the Green Benches, and the article which excited Mr Emmerson’s derision was Why I Detest Consumer Choice – a simple little piece which argued that patient choice is not always ‘the best thing’ for poorly people, any more than a list of coffee drinks as along as your arm is any use for all but Starbucks aficionados.

Before we go any further, I have to say, personally, that I agree on both counts! When I go into Starbucks or Costa Coffe, I always choose a Latte, as much for safety’s sake as anything else. And if I have a heart attack, I hope that the paramedic will send me as quickly as possible to the most appropriate hospital, and stuff my ‘choice’! But there we have it – you are entitled to disagree.

What I would NOT want you to do, however, when I have shared my thoughts with you, is to start up a ‘let’s-laugh-at-John-D-Clare’ hashtag and invite your friends to mock me. Which is what Mr Emmerson proceeded to do with Eoin Clarke.

Staying On Topic
Now, to be fair to the hashtag, it never amounted to more than a couple of dozen smart-alec statements … and most of them were from Mr Emmerson himself, enthusing statements such as:
‘I love that #tweetlikeEoinClarke is actually taking off!’

And, somewhat arrogantly, but good-naturedly:
‘Right, I've had my fun with #tweetlikeeoinclarke, Carry it on dear acolytes! i'm off to do some work’

Nevertheless, after today’s despicable PMQs, Mr Emmerson just ‘got my goat’ tonight.

Not because it has done any real damage. It took me five minutes to turn it into a ‘let’s-praise-Eoin-Clarke’ hashtag, and quite frankly I suspect that Eoin Clarke will have been stunningly unbothered by it anyway.
No – I reacted simply because it was yet another example of the base sump to which politics in our country so easily descends.

Here we have an issue of critical importance to people – literally, a life or death decision: how much choice DO we need in the health services?
And, within seconds of a thoughtless tweet, we have reduced it to personalities, and a string of cheap, meaningless, mocking jibes.

I am NOT going to lay into Mr Emmerson. He is 23, and two years ago he was campaigning to become Winchester Students’ Union’s Ethical and Environmental Officer. He runs a fairly inoffensive blog, but the fact that he has called it The Yellow Bastard tells you all you need to know about the man. He is one of those confident, outspoken young men who will be the leaders of the future, and I wish him well.
But he has demeaned himself in this case.
He has wandered off topic, and attacked the man, not the message.

In all things be edifying
St Paul’s message – ‘in all things be edifying’ (= make sure that everything you say is constructive) – is as apposite to our politicians today as it was to the quarrelling Corinthians all those centuries ago.
And until we can learn to sit down and talk about THE ISSUES without resorting to abuse, to bullying, to showboating and point-scoring – until we adopt solution-focussed politics – we shall continue to get laws which are unsuitable and harmful.

This applies as much to Mr Cameron at the apex of his career, as it does to Mr Emmerson at the beginning.
But today, I am sorry to say, found them both wanting.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Socialism Our Only Hope For The Future

Recently, Will Straw wrote an article on Britain's Place in the Global Economy for Labour List.

The Dark Outlook
It makes depressing reading. Mr Straw begins by outlining the growth of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China. They are growing quickly – they are responsible for almost half the growth in the world’s economy since 2009. Soon, he tells us, they will be joined by Korea, Turkey, Indonesia and Mexico.
By contrast, our economic outlook is bleak. By 2050, only the USA out of the G7 countries will still be in the top five wealthiest nations. Says Mr Straw: ‘The timings may prove wrong but the direction of travel is absolutely clear’ – the West (and Britain with it) is losing its economic dominance.

Mr Straw – to give him his due – tries to strike a note of hope. He suggests that, as these countries grow wealthier, they will come to appreciate the middle-class, high-quality services WE are good at supplying – education, insurance, tourism etc.
It is a tired list, and I wonder if even Mr Straw has much faith in it.
Does anybody really believe that the BRIC countries, which have proved so able to flood our markets with cheap, quality consumer goods, will NOT be able just as effectively to flood the market with high-quality luxury goods and services? Does anybody really think that, in an Asian-dominated global economy, it is going to be British designers, British musicians, and British PR and HR firms who continue to dominate that market?

The Inadequate Response
Yet whilst the BRIC economies grow stronger, the economies of western Europe disintegrate in a chaos of recrimination. Unlike Chinese capitalism, which is significantly directed by the state, for the benefit of the state, western capitalism is free market capitalism, and is increasingly directed for the benefit of a dissolute supra-national elite. Whilst the West loses the economic initiative, its ‘captains of industry’ are looting the treasury as fast as they can to feather their own nest against the rainy day they see approaching.

Economically, at the moment, we seem to be being presented with two options:
One – the road chosen currently by our government – is the road of austerity. By this option we the people are required to accept wage cuts, benefit cuts, rights cuts etc. in order to allow the corporations to maintain their profits whilst the economy spirals into collapse. We can see this happening before our eyes in Greece.
The other seems to be the way of Keynesianism, which would bolster flagging economies with … well, basically, with foreign loans. By this scheme of things, in the short-, even medium-term, we might thereby ALL enjoy growth and the good times a little longer. But ultimately, inevitably, an economy in hock to others will end up operating for others’ benefit.

EITHER way the prospect is horrific. Our unchallenged acceptance of the globalised, free-market corporate-financial economy is only taking us one way.
And the ‘something will turn up’ whistling-in-the-dark optimism of people such as Mr Straw – whilst it all happens around us – is only hastening our demise.

Is there any answer?
During the 1930s, Winston Churchill warned Britain’s politicians against Hitler. War, he said, was inevitable, and the nation should prepare against it.
It was not a popular message.
In 1938, too late, Britain began to prepare for war. The nation was issued with gasmasks and air raid shelters. Then, after 1939, everything was put on a war footing: production and labour were controlled and organised by the government (with the cooperation of the unions and businesses). There was a campaign for as great a self-sufficiency as possible – a ‘dig for victory’ attitude. Rationing was introduced – people were of course not happy with less, but the less that they had was shared out more fairly so that nobody starved. There was generally a communal ‘war spirit’ in which everybody at-least-liked-to-think they were ‘pulling together’.
Against a formidable and deadly foe, there was no alternative – the idea of simply letting ‘the market’ regulate the wartime economy had been discredited during the ‘Shells crisis’ of the First World War.
What is remarkable, looking back, is just how ‘socialist’ many of these wartime solutions were … and of course they ran on naturally into a socialist, nationalised Britain after the war. When faced with annihilation, the only sensible solution to the crisis was NOT a capitalist free market – it was a socialist ‘command’ economy.
And when the nation needed to ‘pull together’, only active ‘socialist’ measures could create the necessary sense of unity-of-purpose.

I am not suggesting, clearly, that we are ‘at war’ – even in an economic war – with the BRIC countries. But what I am saying is that the dog-eat-dog survival-of-the-fittest ethos of unfettered capitalism means that their growing economies constitute a formidable danger to our prosperity, and that their competitiveness is as deadly as an economic blitzkrieg for our businesses.

The Only Answer is Socialism
We live in a capitalist world. We have to maintain trade and communications with the BRIC countries ... for all our sakes. Yet it would be foolish to think that we will not be at a great economic disadvantage in that relationship.
Confronted by their vast trading superiority, therefore, we either follow the 'I'm-all-right-Jack' strategies of the free-market … and continue to live as we are living now – like the inhabitants of Gibbon’s Rome as they watched the forces-from-outside gradually erode their lifestyle.
Or we show foresight and introduce socialist command strategies to protect our people as our economic position changes/declines.

I cannot believe that I am the only one that thinks we face overwhelming economic clouds gathering on the horizon.
Faced by economic disaster, socialism is the only answer … what we lack is the collective will to marshal our forces against the coming storm.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Pets And Poverty - How Right Is Edwina Currie?

Edwina Currie, you will realise, has got her head in her hands (again) recently. She made a ‘young, struggling Derbyshire mother’ named Hayley Sanderson cry on a Radio 5 Live phone-in programme. Apparently Ms Currie’s response to the woman’s plight was to ask her if she had a dog, or satellite TV.
Yes? Well then (Ms Currie’s reaction can be summarised), stop moaning – you’re not really poor.

Ms Currie’s comments have indeed raised a storm of left-wing vitriol. Even the LibDem Guardian published a sanctimonious rebuttal:
‘Poverty is relative and since when did the African poor cancel out our own poor? … one in five mums, like [Ms] Sanderson, [go without] meals to feed their children … when people like Haley Sanderson have the courage to speak up, they should be treated with respect’.

Should we care that Ms Sanderson was reduced to tears?
Do I feel sorry for Hayley Sanderson? Not really.

Firstly, I am sure that Hayley Sanderson is a lovely woman, but you have to be at best naïve to phone Edwina Currie hoping for sympathy about your financial situation. Ms Currie’s views on British poverty are well known – she recently told Owen Jones that you cannot be poor if you own a mobile phone – and I am sure we can all think of many, many people we would go to before we phoned her on Radio 5 Live for advice on our money problems.

And – at the risk of incurring your wrath (and please read to the bottom before you troll me) – you have to agree in part with Ms Currie’s analysis. A dog costs, apparently, £1,400 a year to keep - that's nearly £30 a week. It is very easy to end up paying £70 a month for satellite TV.
So let’s face it, if you or I (through our own fault OR NOT) were reduced to the point where we were unable to feed our children, is it not true that we would be looking for savings … and that the dog and Sky TV would be costs we would review.

Most of all, with due respect to Barbara Ellen in the Guardian, and for all my left-wing opinions, I would NOT be phoning up Edwina Currie.
And I don’t think you would be either.

You CANNOT expect these Tories (I will say appositely and very amusingly) to give you the lickings of a dog!
(‘Boom boom!’ as Basil Brush would have said.)

The Ideological Conundrum
But does all this make Ms Currie right?
SHOULD the answer to the Ms Sandersons of this world indeed be: ‘Go away, cut your living expenses, make ends meet, stop moaning … you’re not really poor’?

Since they got into power, the Tories have mounted a dual-assault on the less well-off of our society.

The first argument is that we have to reduce the deficit, and they have certainly won the public debate on that – to the extent that Labour is arguing just as hard that we have to reduce the deficit. So it is unsurprising that a cost-cutting government should be casting around to find some welfare benefits to reduce.

But the Tories’ second argument has been an ideological one – to suggest that somehow we have been giving the poor TOO MUCH … that we have created (as Corelli Barnett claimed in 1986) a ‘Santa Claus’ state which has encouraged ‘an uneducated, unskilled, unhealthy working class hanging on the nipple of state provision’.

Alarmingly, it is true that this attitude, also, has chimed with the public. I was amazed that the only response to my Parable of the Neglected Children – which compared the government’s attitude to the disabled to that of parents requiring an 8-year-old child to care for himself – was one which suggested that, recently, they had been ‘a bit molly-coddled’.

The Tories appear to have won the propaganda war on this one too.
The point is that – despite all the manufactured outrage about the nasty pasty making the yummy mummy cry – most people in this country agree with Edwina.

The moral of the tale of the weeping woman
Instead of worrying about Ms Sanderson, however, I think I would ask you to consider the ideological issue.

Our society has pledged to care for those who find themselves unable to care for themselves. That, for goodness sake, is the very underlying principle of a ‘welfare state’.

Also – let’s be brutally honest – amongst those ‘unable to care for themselves’ there are ALWAYS going to be those who find themselves in that position for different reasons. We are NEVER going to be able to engineer a clear-cut world in which all the poor are ‘deserving’ poor, or to separate them from the so-called ‘undeserving’.
There are ALWAYS going to be cases of people who have eaten themselves to obesity, or blundered their way into poverty.
Where do you draw the line between addiction and mental illness, or between culpable mistakes and mental weakness?

It reminds me of the prayer we used to say at Church where we asked God to forgive us for our sins, committed ‘through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’. The reality is that it matters not how we got into that state – just that this is the state we now find ourselves in, and that something needs doing about it.
As a society, we have promised to care for the poor and I think it is just an unavoidable fact of life that we are going to look at some of those poor people and wonder whether they only have themselves to blame.
Come to terms with it.
For me, it is the irrelevant issue – the immediate relevant issue is that they are poor (and the truth is that, as well as giving them the wherewithal to live, perhaps we need also to be giving them the wherewithal to sort out their problems).

The Tories’ argument about the deserving poor is the same argument as that which suggests that we should refuse medical treatment to lung-cancer patients who smoke, or to drunk-drivers who have crashed … because they only have themselves to blame. It is a sort of ‘let-them-die-it-serves-them right!’ argument

And it is only the same argument as that of Edwina Currie, who can tell a woman that she must be poor because she didn’t save enough when the times were good. ‘Go hungry – it serves you right!’

At, at this point, Edwina Currie suddenly becomes ‘wrong’.

Once we, as a society, have pledged to maintain the poor and the weak (and, yes, the incapable and the feckless), the next thing we surely need to do is to decide what standard of living we are going to afford those people.

SHOULD someone who is ‘living on the state’ be able to afford to keep a dog?
Do we regard it as an entitlement that state benefits should stretch to Sky TV, or mobile phones for the children?

Just exactly what minimum standard-of-living do we require for the poor and the weak of our society?
Just exactly what level of ‘poverty’ are we – as a civilised society – prepared to tolerate?

As I say, public opinion at the moment would overwhelmingly agree with Edwina that Gordon Brown was far too soft, and that the poor of our society should NOT have given to them the things that the rest of us have to work hard to obtain … and sometimes still find ourselves unable to afford.

But my biggest problem with that line of thinking is that, in essence, it requires us to build a society where those of us who – from age, catastrophe or disability – find ourselves unable to care for ourselves, are consciously maintained at a level BELOW that of the rest of the able-bodied, working, more fortunate population.

It is an ideology of welfare which requires that the poor MUST be kept visibly poorer than the rest of us.
It is an ideology of welfare which demands that the ‘have-nots’ indeed ‘have not’.

It is a TORY ideology of welfare.
And I’m not sure that I particularly welcome it.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Parable Of The Neglected Children

This weekend on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions, Labour MP Tristram Hunt ridiculed the common comparison of our national budget to a family’s purse as an outdated 1980s concept appropriate only for a Grantham housewife.
I do not agree. I think the analogy of a family is VERY appropriate for our times.

Meet the Smiths
Up until recently, the Smiths were regarded as a rich family. John Smith, the father, had a prestigious role in the City with a vast salary, a London apartment and a high-roller lifestyle to match it. Jane, his wife, and the rest of the family lived quietly in Durham, but she had a decent career, and teenage daughter Janice had a weekend job as a waitress whilst she was working her way through college. The family was completed by little Joe, aged 8.
The family’s comfortable lifestyle came abruptly to an end, however, a few years ago. Apparently, dad’s high-octane lifestyle included a gambling addiction, and in 2009 a string of stupid bets had gone spectacularly wrong. With dad paralysed by panic, it was mum Jane who stepped in, took the loan which called off the creditors, and set the family on the road – if not to recovery – at least to survival.

A family in need
Although the Smith children suspected that dad’s disaster would damage their family, however, it took them a while to appreciate the full extent of the calamity.

The first time they realised was at a ‘family meeting’. The loan to clear dad’s debts, Mum explained, had been taken out in her name, and the repayments were taking most of her salary. She could keep the roof over their heads, she explained, but there would have to be vicious cuts to everything else … basically, Janice and Joe were told that from now on they would have to feed and clothe themselves.

When Janice suggested that maybe dad should help by contributing more to the family budget, she was amazed at his response.
John Smith – thanks to his wife’s prompt action – had managed to keep his job, and was still earning a huge salary. He still had his London apartment, was still out clubbing every night, and – the children suspected – had even started gambling again.
But his reaction to his daughter’s suggestion took them both by surprise.

John Smith was not at all repentant. He was sick, he told them, of supporting this feckless and indulgent family. Janice was just being lazy – she should go out and get a job. And Joe? It was pointless Janice arguing that he was too weak and vulnerable to fend for himself – Dad had seen him running round energetically in the garden, and it was time he stopped pretending to be little and started contributing to the family. Janice and Joe, Dad announced, would hitherto be charged a market-realistic rent for their rooms.

And it was Mum’s response that took them most by surprise, because Mum supported her husband to the hilt. If the children continued asking him for money in this way, Mum explained, then there was a real danger that Dad would leave them ... would up sticks and take off – and where would they all be then?

A family in distress
By this time, neither child retained any love or respect for either parent, and it seemed to Janice that there was little practical difference between a Dad who contributed nothing to the family’s needs, and a Dad who wasn’t there at all, but she genuinely hesitated to tell him to pay up or clear off (to the extent that she had any say in the matter anyway). The fear of dangers unknown was greater than her despair at the injustices of her current situation.

So she is currently looking after Joe as best she can, on the money she scrapes together.

But it is a hopeless task and, as the months go by, Janice and Joe’s teachers are noticing that – whilst Dad and Mum Smith seem as prosperous as ever – the children are beginning to look increasingly neglected, stressed and distressed.
Their problem, as teachers, is this; whether – or when – this family needs reporting.

The Parable
In this parable:

‘Dad’ represents the bankers and businessmen, whose profligate and high-risk ventures caused the financial crisis and collapse of 2009. Now, of course, these people brazenly continue to demand their obscene profits and salaries, and indeed are seeking even greater deregulation and tax-avoidance.

‘Mum’ represents the government, whose firm action in 2009 averted financial meltdown, but which is now taking the Market’s side, failing to close tax loopholes, pussy-footing round the bonus culture, balking at regulation, and telling us that – if we do not accept this – the danger is that ‘the City’ will desert us for some other country.

‘The children’ represent British society, including both those who might be able to take care of themselves and those who palpably cannot. Together, they represent the people who are being penalised – who are carrying the burden of austerity – but who are at the same time called work-shy and scroungers if they dare to mention the difficulties.

Thus the analogy of a ‘family’ IS absolutely appropriate to our current economic situation – a dysfunctional economy, where those who might reasonably have expected to be protected have been abandoned and betrayed, and those who might reasonably have been expected to provide the wealth are instead demanding greater and greater rewards for doing less and less for society.

And finally, therefore, ‘the teachers’ are you and me, who need to decide when or whether it is time to call this situation to an end, to tell the Markets to pull their weight or clear off, to throw out the government, and to seek a new system … with all the uncertainties and dangers that would entail.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Elizabeth Warren Is Correct On Class Warfare

Former White House advisor Elizabeth Warren hit the nail on the head regarding the capitalist class who feel they are making their money and they ought to be allowed to keep it ... the ones who constantly want taxes and regulation to reduce, and who threaten to leave if we don't play ball because they are the 'wealth-creators'

Here she is speaking in September 2011:

“I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.' No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.
“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.
“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Three cheers for Ms Warren.
We cannot have a society where WE pay for everything (including the goods they produce) and they take all the profit.
It is time for a bit more 'give and take'.

And that means a bit more giving by the richest 1%, and a bit more taking by the rest of us!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

How Labour Must Be A Party Of Opposition

Today has been a good day.

I am not alone in thinking so. Today, one of the members of the Labour Left political discussion forum of which I am a member commented:
“I feel good about Labour today. Something’s changed – not tangible yet ... but I feel it will be soon.”
And I SO agree. I’m feeling good too. I feel a change too.

Today, also, I was out with Sedgefield CLP Campaign Team doing voter-id.
It was a REALLY nice estate – lots of Tories – but everyone was very pleasant and the Labour voters I met welcomed me like a long-lost brother!

I visited one old chap’s bungalow: ‘May I ask how you voted at the last election?’

Well – he hadn’t voted Labour.
Then, before I had a chance to say another word, he launched into a diatribe against the government – how their manifesto had been a pack of lies, how Cameron was a brazen opportunist, etc. etc.
EVERYTHING the government was doing was wrong … wicked … a betrayal.
He didn’t give them, as we say up here, ‘the lickings of a dog’.

Without pausing for breath, he then went straight on to attack the Labour Party – prissy posh boys who didn’t care about ordinary people.
“Where’s the opposition?” he asked. “There’s so much they could be attacking them on!”
‘Even recently?’ I offered. ‘Don’t you think that they’ve been doing better recently … for instance on the NHS?’

He paused and looked upwards reflectively.
“Perhaps,” he mused. “Yes … they have been better – they need to be.”
And on that, agreeing that we needed to do more to oppose these dirty-dog Tories, we shook hands and I was on my way.

What is Opposition?
But THAT’S the difference, isn’t it – Andy Burnham’s outright opposition to the NHS bill.

There are people throughout Britain, like my voter in Sedgefield, YEARNING for a Party which will oppose.

It’s not as though there’s nothing to oppose, either!
Tuition fees are a betrayal of our most able youth by a generation which was happy enough to take selfish advantage of its own much-more-generous university-provision.
The public sector pension proposals are a simple case of state theft-by-force.
The Welfare Reform Bill is a despicable attack on the most vulnerable and weak of society.
The unemployment figures – particularly youth unemployment – are an abomination and a waste of the nation’s talents.
The NHS Bill and Gove’s Education reforms are purely-and-simply Tory attempts to hand over the plums of the state sector to their business-buddies.
And so on...

Behold, Burnham!
Until Andy Burnham, the Shadow Cabinet has been shackled by a collective recognition that, all told, they would probably not have been doing so-very-much-differently. Consequently, they have stuttered and hesitated.
They have even appeared to admit that the Tories were right – no wonder my Sedgefield voter was dismissive!

But now Andy Burnham has changed the ball-game.
Because Andy Burnham has realised what no one else in the Shadow Cabinet seems to have yet realised – that to be a good opposition you do NOT need to set out the alternative policy you would follow if you were in power.

The job of a good opposition is to OPPOSE – to find the faults, the flaws, in the government’s policies.
And that, Mr Miliband, is what we want you to do.
And we want you and your colleagues to do so with all the passion and outrage and anger and frustration that we feel.
You are our representatives, and we wish you to rail against these blackguards who are trashing our nation with impunity … and getting away with it.

Hold the manifesto!
Eventually, of course, Labour will HAVE to sit down and put down on paper how it would propose to run the country if the electorate puts us into power in 2015.
But for the moment, there is no need – ‘Hold the Front Page’, as they say in those movies about newspapers.

Until that time, Labour should make free ripping to shreds these miserable, vindictive proposals that the Tories are bringing forward – attacking them in both the detail and in the round.
And THAT, Mr Miliband, is how you will make more and more of us ‘feel good about Labour’.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Austerity Welfare? What About Austerity Taxes As Well!

The tax calculations for this article are subject to my infinite capacity for error, but you can check them for yourselves if you wish - I have used HMRC archive tables for income tax, surtax and personal allowances.
I have eyed in the approximate modern equivalencies (based on the National Archives currency converter) at 1:25, 1950-2012
and calculated the modern tax returns here.

For the past few months, I have been arguing that austerity will not reduce the deficit, but will just cause a recession. I have also been arguing that the answer is to increase tax – not on those who have nothing to spare, but on those richer people who are saving not spending.
In these days of ‘austerity’, it is almost de rigeur to cite Beveridge (both Liam Byrne and Ian Duncan Smith have appealed to ‘Beveridge principles’) … and I have quoted his aphorism: ‘bread for all before cake for any’.

Income Tax in 1950
So were Income Tax rates higher in those 'Beveridge' years after 1945?

Certainly, the rate of taxation was much higher in days of 'austerity' after the Second World War. The basic rate of income tax was 45% (compared to 20% today), but higher-earners were subjected in addition to a ‘surtax’ which rose from 10% on £2000 to 52.5% on incomes over £20,000.

‘We’re all in this together’, says Cameron, but the rich are not ‘in it’ to the degree that they were after the war.
I have calculated the tax that various earners would have paid in 1950.
Someone earning £25,000 in 1950 would have paid £20,600 of it in tax to the Inland Revenue – 83% of their income was taken in tax. By contrast, someone earning the equivalent income today (£625,000) would be paying only £290,000 (46%) in tax.

But before you go rushing ahead and demand a return to 1950’s values in income tax, you need to remember that Thatcher slashed the rate of income tax, and that 13 years of Labour government saw a relentless upwards pressure on the tax threshold.
In 1950, ALL wage-earners paid tax – 12.5% up to £50pa, and 25% up to £2,000pa – with the result that someone on £1,000 a year paid £320 a year in tax (32%) … whereas some on the equivalent income today (£25,000) would be paying only £3500 (14%).

So – whereas to take the highest earners back to the kind of ‘all-in-it-together’ taxes they were contributing in 1945 would mean a huge 77% increase in their taxes – to do the same for today’s mid-earners would mean a massive more-than-double increase in the actual amount of income tax they paid.

Of course there are differences – purchase tax has been replaced by VAT (at 20%), and I realise that high-earners nowadays seem to be able to avoid tax almost altogether – but the uncomfortable truth would still seem to be that (at least on paper) we have a system of taxation today which is easier proportionally on middle-earners than the system in 1950. The tax structure in 1950 appears more regressive than today, and this is more-or-less true, in fact, of any time before Thatcher.

Nevertheless, as I have argued before, taking money off anyone earning less than £25,000 today ends up stripping as much out of the tax yield as it puts into it, so there is no point in whopping up taxes at the lower end … however ‘fair-to-the-working-man’ it might be regarded as being.

Thus while I realise that a raise in Income Tax would be an absolute anathema to any Party which had hopes of getting elected, I would argue that needs must in a crisis. In a situation which is economically as dangerous as any war has in the past been militarily, I think it is increasingly unavoidable that those in society who DO have ‘something to spare’ should be asked
at least in the short termto contribute more.

They were contributing much more in 1950.

Austerity Is A Disaster – I Told You So

This blog will repeat many of the ideas and things I’ve already said, but how do you say ‘I told you so’ without repeating yourself?

Will we go where Greece has led?
Greece is a warning, as well as an exemplar, of what happens when you rely on austerity to cut the deficit. You simply get into a downward spiral where economic recession (and therefore tax revenue) runs ahead of the cuts and the deficit gets worse, not better.
In Greece, public sector salaries have been cut by 40%. Has austerity worked? No – the Greek economy has contracted by 6% in 2011 (manufacturing fell 15% in December), unemployment is running at 21%, 60,000 small businesses have gone under in the last six months … and VAT revenue is DOWN 19%.
People are committing suicide and abandoning their children outside orphanages, yet Greece has not a hope in hell of meeting its debt service charges … so what do we do? – Germany insists on more, more swinging, austerity cuts.

Meanwhile, Europe is indulging on a continental scale in what we are doing as a nation – blackguarding the very people we are victimising. In Britain we are blaming the ‘scroungers’ – saying that it is their lazy, indulgent, opulent lifestyle which is causing the deficit. Today I received an email ‘joke’ to the effect that there had been an international survey in Blackburn of whether Britain should join the Euro which had found that they would prefer the giro – it managed to stigmatise those on benefits AND be racist at the same time!
But we are doing the same internationally to Greece – accusing them of lying about their financial situation, thinking tax is optional etc.

It's DEFLATION, stupid!
It is all a nonsense.
If we used the word ‘DEFLATION’, not the more romantic term ‘austerity’ (with its overtones of reconstruction after the war), then the situation we find ourselves in would be much clearer in people’s minds:

The government makes ‘austerity’ (deflationary) cuts.
People get poorer/ the economy stutters
Tax revenues fall
The deficit gets worse not better
The Markets demand more ‘austerity’ (deflationary) cuts

This is the situation which Greece finds itself in, but it is a situation coming soon to a country uncomfortably near you.

The Catch-22 of 'Austerity'
Today, Rating’s Agency Moody’s has put Britain on a warning that it is about to lose its Triple-A rating. To a degree, we are hostages of fortune – Moody’s has said that our rating depends on the state of the euro, so there’s little we can do about that.

Balls has attacked Osborne saying that it proves that he has cut too far, too fast but – to be fair to Osborne – Moody’s have made it very clear that it is THE DEFICIT which is the ultimate arbiter. Instability in Europe will lose us our rating because it will threaten our ability to reduce the deficit. Our flat-lining economy will lose us our rating because it will threaten our ability to reduce the deficit.

But as fast as we try to reduce the deficit, the deflationary measures we are using to do so threaten our ability to reduce the deficit.
Catch-22 or what?

I am not a clever economist, but surely it is time to realise that ‘austerity’ (deflation) IS HURTING BUT IT’S NOT WORKING.

It strikes me that two issues are critical:
1. We MUST get people off the dole and back into work, so they are paying taxes.
2. We MUST grasp the nettle and TAX THE RICH; they will squeal, but there is no other solution – impoverishing the poor has surely been proved to be counter-productive.

I TOLD you: Austerity is a disaster.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Let's Have a Pragmatic Foreign Policy on Syria

Rupert’s Read, apparently, is the 3rd best Councillor blog in the country, so Dr Rupert Read is clearly not a nincompoop, but today’s post on Syria shows that even professors talk rubbish from time to time.

His blog, to be fair, was primarily a criticism of a ‘Stop the War!’ demonstration outside the American embassy, trying to stop the US intervening in Syria. ‘Shame on them,’ says Dr Read, ‘Shame on them for in practice opposing the Libyan and Syrian revolutions, and offering succour to dictators … Syria is an authentic revolution being snuffed by active evil from the 'government' there. All human people will feel and attempt to practice solidarity with the Syrian Opposition.’

Decent-minded stuff. Unfortunately his short comment illustrates just exactly everything that is wrong with many ‘liberal’ (small ‘l’) attitudes to war today.

Why Dr Read is Wrong
Before I start, may I stress that I am not a ‘Trot’ from the Socialist Workers’ Party. Neither am I uncaring about the situation in Syria – I have my twitter feed set to receive tweets from the Middle East and, as Dr Read says, one would have to be inhuman not to be heartbroken with what is happening there.

But the question is not: ‘Is the situation in Syria terrible?’ nor even: ‘Is intervention desirable?’
The question is: ‘Should we intervene?’
And at the moment, you would have to be some kind of extremist to say ‘Yes’.

For a start, why are we intervening? ‘Easy, you idiot’, you say – ‘those poor people are being slaughtered by their own government! We need to intervene on humanitarian grounds.’
But even the most idealistic interventionist cannot surely regard this as a sufficient cause for intervention. There are governments being inhuman to their citizens all over the world – not least China in Tibet. So let’s declare war on China, perhaps? Or what about #Bahrain, where the tweets are almost as heartbreaking, night after night after night? Or what about those countries where the regime neglects (rather than oppresses) its subjects … I’ll tell you what, let’s simply resurrect the British Empire as a benevolent world despot, and impose our benign democratic capitalism on them all?
Even it were militarily possible for a economically-weak country which no longer ‘rules the waves’, it would be morally repugnant … and if it is wrong in the macro, why is it necessarily right in this specific instance?

Not Unilaterally
The problem, surely, is not intervention, but unilateral intervention. In a situation where the United Nations had collectively decided that Syria was an abomination and that we needed regime-change, perhaps contributing to that universally-endorsed, well-intentioned intervention would be justified. Or if even the Arab League decided that it wanted to put its own house in order, perhaps we might justifiably offer support. But who gave us the right to decide that China and Russia are talking out of their backsides so we’ll plough on anyway and interfere in affairs half-a-world away to bring about some new situation which we hope will be ethically more acceptable to us, and politically-beneficial to our interests?
Because don’t think I haven’t noticed the difference between the way we have reacted to Gadaffi and Assad, and the way we are turning a blind eye to Bahrain.

Ironically, the urgent need to save lives is not uppermost in Dr Read’s mind. ‘There is’, he says, ‘no short- or medium-term prospect for military intervention and (strange though it sounds to say it) less extreme urgency...’. Dr Read is NOT charging to the rescue of the women and children being shelled in Homs.
Rather, he says, ‘we should try all we can … to give solidarity to the Syrian people who have risen up with unbelievable bravery against their oppressive 'leaders'. So what he is advocating is not humanitarian intervention but regime change.

Not, mind you, like in Iraq – which he tells us was ‘pure aggression and neo-colonialism’. No – Dr Read wants GOOD regime change – ‘against their oppressive “leaders”.’
And one is left wondering when these people will ever learn.

The Problems with Intervention
Without going on more than is necessary, do I REALLY have to list the problems that follow upon intervention?
Hatred: have people not noticed that, after we have finally disentangled ourselves from these escapades, we leave an entire country seething with hostility and loathing towards us? We do not make ‘friendly’ states, we create hotbeds of extremism.
Things do not turn out as we thought: Iraq, actually, for the moment, did not turn out quite so badly, for all everybody dismisses this as the ‘illegal’ war. But in Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, can anybody say that things have turned out well for the West? Or what about Somalia – a crystal-clear demonstration of what happens when one nation intervenes unilaterally in the affairs of another?
Death: of thousands of our finest and bravest young men.
Failure: I am sure that I am not incorrect in thinking that by far the vast majority of British people are yearning to get out of Afghanistan, and that many of us expect the Taliban to be back in power within months (as they were after the Russians pulled out in 1989).
Cost: at a time when, apparently, we cannot afford to take care of our own disabled people, we seem to have unlimited funds for bombing and sabre-rattling.
Economy: it has not slipped my notice than countries like China, Germany, Brazil etc. – whose economies are booming – are doing so on the back of long periods of peace. Neither am I unmindful of the power of the military-industrial lobby over Western governments, and their realisation that budgets are being cut.

The Need for Intervention
I am not a pacifist. I am not even anti-interventionist.
We were right to take back the Falklands, and need to be ready to do so again should Argentina try to deprive the Falklanders of their right of self-determination.
Ridiculously, I do not agree with Dr Read that Iraq was ‘pure aggression and neo-colonialism’. Given that our Prime Minister was faced with a situation where – to the best of our admittedly hopeless information – Iraq may or may not have had nuclear weapons, I am glad that he chose to invade even if he didn't find any WMDs; on the grounds that the alternative (that we didn’t invade and Iraq got a nuclear weapon) is too horrific to contemplate.

I realise that this compromises me over Iran. But we simply cannot continue swaggering round the world, intervening every time there is a situation which strikes us as a bad show.
I would be horrified if our foreign policy ceased to be ethical, but we need to temper it with pragmatism.